There is a reason why so many golfers flock to Southwest Florida, especially Naples, to indulge in their favorite pastime. The weather is a given. Few places in the country can put things in perspective so quickly, so easily. Bad shots don't feel so bad when a Gulf breeze is at your back in the middle of winter.
But the golf courses themselves have huge drawing power. There are so many of them, more per capita than in any other place, perhaps. And as more golfers arrive, demand increases. And so does the pressure for quality.
So it is probably no coincidence that several top names in golf course architecture have left their mark in the area. Sometimes, it just isn't enough to have an excellent golf course to help lure folks to buy homes in your golf course community. Most golfers like a name.
And there are some big ones in these parts. Try Jack Nicklaus. Or Arnold Palmer. Or Gary Player. Or Greg Norman. Between them, they've won 36 professional major championships.
Those golf icons Also ll have successful golf course design careers, and all have designed courses in Southwest Florida. Throw in Tom Fazio, among the top golf course designers in the country, and the area has a grand slam-and then some-of architects.
"Golfers have become educated as to who designs their golf courses," says Fazio, who got started in the design business with his uncle, George Fazio, some 35 years ago. There was a time, 20 or 30 years ago, when everybody didn't have a name on a shirt. It's the same with golf courses. Designer golf courses came into style."
These days, who designed a course is nearly as important as how beautiful or challenging it is, where the course is located and how expensive it is to play. And along with brand recognition, says Fazio, "people expect quality."
But to achieve that quality as well as name recognition requires more than a knack for constructing a challenging course. The project's budget, the terrain, the vision of the client are all factors in building a golf course.
And then there are reputations, deserved or otherwise. Nicklaus, for instance, has long strived to shed the notion that he designed courses for players like him. In other words, courses too difficult for almost anyone else who played the game. Perhaps there was some truth to that early on, but today Nicklaus designs courses popular with club players as well as pros. In fact, Golf Digest has ranked six of Nicklaus' courses among America's 100 Greatest Golf Courses for 2003-2004
The ranking system takes into account such factors as shot values, resistance to scoring, design variety, memorability, aesthetics, conditioning, ambience and walkability.
Over the years, Fazio developed a style that wasn't really a style at all. His charge became to do what the client wanted, whether or not the land lent itself to such a design. That gave him a reputation as a designer willing to move plenty of dirt.
Today, the land doesn't matter,' he says. You can build a great golf course anywhere. . . I don't really have a favorite. Sure, Id love to work with a great, natural piece of property, but I like the challenge of working on different sites in various environments and locations. If they were all the same, it wouldn't be nearly as challenging."
All five of these well-known designers would love to work with the perfect piece of property. And they all aspire to the highest level, but in different ways. Here is a look at the careers of these legendary golf names.
Jack Nicklaus has won 18 professional major championships, the most of any player in history. He captured each of the four major championships at least once, including six Masters, five PGA Championships, four U.S. Opens and three British Opens. In all, there are 73 PGA Tour titles.
In the late 1960s, when Nicklaus was still in his 20s, he got a hankering for golf course design. He collaborated on his first project, Harbor Town Golf Links in Hilton Head, S.C., with noted architect Pete Dye. From there, another career was born.
Today, the Nicklaus Design company boasts courses all around the world. As of the beginning of this year, Nicklaus had 217 courses open for play worldwide, including 183 solo designs, 25 co-designs and nine redesigns. As a company, Nicklaus Design had 260 courses open for play; a number are featured in his book Nicklaus by Design: Golf Course Strategy and Architecture, published by Harry N. Abrams last year.
With his son, Jackie, Nicklaus co-designed the Club at TwinEagles in Naples. It opened in 1999 and for the past two years has been home to the ACE Group Classic, Naples' Champions Tour stop where Nicklaus played for the first time this year. The course is fun for members, but also offers a stern test for the 50-and-over senior pros who play it from the back tees. It was designed to accommodate galleries and has short distances between greens and tees, which is rare today in courses built in communities. Another Nicklaus course is planned for the property.
"They're like children," Nicklaus says of his courses. "They're all equal. I started doing golf courses when I was in my late 20s because when I was finished playing golf, I wanted to have something to be involved in. It was fun and it turned out to be what I do today. Back then, there wasn't a senior tour. Nobody was competing at this age."
When Arnold Palmer won the 1960 U.S. Open, shooting a final-round 65, golf on network television was just starting to take hold. An entire generation of fans watched Palmer's career take off, and they stayed with him all the while.
Today, at 73, Palmer is as popular as ever. This year, he played in the Masters, a tournament he's won four times, for the 49th straight year. A career that began with a win at the 1955 Canadian Open has been filled with big victories and gut-wrenching defeats. Palmer was as beloved for his go-for-broke style as he was for winning. In all, he won seven professional major championships and 62 PGA Tour titles. With the help of partner Ed Seay, the Palmer Course Design Company has become a complete worldwide planning and design organization, with more than 250 active projects and open golf courses, covering 36 states as well as several international destinations.
Among the company's Southwest Florida designs are WildCat Run Country Club in Estero, the Ginn Golf Club under construction in Naples, and Naples Lakes Country Club. Many of Palmer's courses feature a bit of deception, perhaps a landing area that appears narrower than it really is or a prominent bunker that might not really be in play. The idea is to allow average players a chance to succeed.
"A golf course must be built for all golfers and should be truly beautiful," Palmer says. "There can be no gimmicks. Every aspect of the course must serve the game of golf in the purest sense."
Gary Player may go down in history as the most traveled athlete of all time. A native of South Africa, he traversed the globe while chasing golf titles. He won a career Grand Slam-victories in all four major championships-before Nicklaus accomplished the feat. He captured a total of nine major championships and 21 PGA Tour titles. He also won the Australian Open seven times and the World Match Play Championship five times.
All the while, Player kept a primary residence in his native Johannesburg, and made frequent trips to the United States and Europe. Like Nicklaus and Palmer, he developed a love of golf course architecture and has projects all over the world.
Player doesn't mass-produce designs. He is heavily involved in the design and marketing of each of his courses.
"Our philosophy is to take a piece of ground and make it into a champion," Player says. "We're always thinking of things we can do to improve on nature. Improve the water situation. Plant trees to fight pollution. Put water holes circulating on the golf course to increase bird life. We're always thinking of things we can do to improve nature."
Player's lone Southwest Florida design is The Classics at Lely Resort in Naples, where the tournament now known as the ACE Group Classic was played for one year, in 1996. It is one of eight Florida designs for Player and is designed with the everyday player in mind.
Player likes wide fairways and places bunkers to the sides of greens. It makes for faster play and more fun at all levels.
"If you make the fairways wider, don't have the greens undulating and put your trouble at the sides of the greens, it will give golfers a chance," he says. "The way you design golf courses does have an impact on speed.'"
Greg Norman has won 20 PGA Tour events, including two British Opens, but may be known more for heartbreak than hardware. Norman lost each of the four major championships in a playoff, the only player to do so. Some tournaments were outright stolen from him, others he lost, but he always did so in spectacular fashion.
Much the same can be said for Norman's off-course interests, which are numerous. The Australian, who makes his home in Hobe Sound, has the Greg Norman Turf Company, the Greg Norman Collection, Greg Norman Estates, Greg Norman Australian Grille, even Norman Expedition Yachts.
And there is also Greg Norman Golf Course Design, which he established in 1987 in Sydney, Australia. Later, he opened a second office in Jupiter. Now, Norman has courses and projects on four continents. His courses have received acclaim from world-class players because they are home to big golf events. One is the TPC at Sugarloaf in Duluth, Ga., site of the PGA Tour's BellSouth Classic. There is the Grand Golf Club in Queensland, Australia, site of the 2001 Australian Open.
And there is Tiburón Golf Club in Naples, home to the PGA Tour-sanctioned Franklin Templeton Shootout. Tiburón is unique in Florida: The course has virtually no rough. Fairways are bordered by waste areas. Almost all of the tee boxes are elevated and the greens are crowned, meaning shots that hit on the edges tend to roll off. It is a stern test.
"Our design team puts a lot of time and effort into finding the most desirable natural features of a site and incorporates them into the routing," Norman says. "Streams, rock features, vegetation and undulating topography are a few natural elements that can provide a golf course with its own unique feel when incorporated into the playing experience."
Tiburón is 36 holes and part of a residential development and resort that includes the Ritz-Carlton.
Unlike the others, Fazio's entire career has been golf course design, and there are many who believe he is the best in the business.
Fazio won all three Golf Digest polls that named a Best Modern Day Golf Course Architect (1991, 1993 and 1995)the honor. In 1999, the magazine recognized two Fazio layouts as the number-one and number-two Best New Private Courses. Eight of his designs were named in Golf Digest's Top 100, and Golfweek included 20 of his courses in its list of America's Best Modern Courses. A brief list of some world-class Fazio designs: Black Diamond in Lecanto, Fla.; Shadow Creek in Las Vegas; Wade Hampton in Cashiers, N.C.; The Quarry at LaQuinta, Calif.; Victoria National Golf Club in Newburgh, Ind. Fazio has designed these courses in Southwest Florida: the Cypress Course at Bonita Bay and the Sabal Course at Bonita Bay in Bonita Springs; the Gateway Club in Fort Myers, Pelican's Nest in Bonita Springs, Windstar Country Club in Naples and his latest, called Mediterra, a 36-hole complex in Naples. "I would play those courses every day of my life," says Bob Burris, tournament director for Naples' ACE Group Classic. "You would never get tired of playing those courses. They are wonderfully manicured."
The accolades go on for Fazio, 58, a father of six whose home base is in Hendersville, N.C., and who commands up to $1 million per project.
All of this, of course, brings a good a good bit of pressure. Fazio jokes that he is often blamed for the price of golf courses going up, mainly because he is asked to design them in places that require much effort. And his clients have come to expect that each new design will be as significant as the others. That can be daunting.
"The directive doesn't come, 'We want you to design an expensive golf course,'" Fazio says. "It's, 'We want you to produce a golf course that's as good as anything in the world-on opening day."
"In the '60s, we went out and looked for the best piece of land," Fazio says. "When it was finished, the standard was that when it matures, it will be a good golf course. Today, that's not enough. Because of the rankings and the lists, people want to be compared to the best in the world. So you're basically creating an environment."
Bob Harig covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times and ESPN.com.